Arts

Movie Review

Peak excitement pondered in ‘Mountain’

A high-wire walker traverses a canyon in Jen Peedom’s documentary “Mountain.”
Greenwich Entertainment
A high-wire walker traverses a canyon in Jen Peedom’s documentary “Mountain.”

As generic as its title, Jen Peedom’s “Mountain” offers the standard thrilling cinematography, soaring soundtrack, and banal commentary, in this case intoned by Willem Dafoe and written by Robert Macfarlane, whose book “Mountains of the Mind” inspired the film. Without the latter verbiage, the film might have aspired to be a rhythmic music/image fusion in the manner of “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982). 

The film’s visual landscape (including camerawork by Renan Ozturk of the 2015 documentary “Meru”) consists of stunning shots taken from drones, helicopters, and Go-pro cameras attached to climbers and other extreme sports participants. A typical shot shows a towering, naked rock face on which a dotlike figure can be spotted. A close-up reveals a person clinging to the rock with bare hands and cleatless shoes, a sickening abyss beckoning below. 

This pattern repeats on different, equally spectacular mountain-scapes, and though the film was shot on every continent, in countries ranging from Argentina to Switzerland, from Australia to the US (annoyingly none get identified), and each scene possesses its own vertiginous wonder, the points made become thuddingly predictable. Mountains are big, humans are tiny. Mountains last eons, human lives are insignificant. Climbing mountains is dangerous, yet people do it anyway. People project their desires onto mountains, but mountains don’t care.

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Though these themes are evident from the imagery, they are spelled out by the pseudo-profundities of the voice-over narration. “You never feel so alive, knowing that at any minute you could die,” Dafoe informs us unhelpfully as an undaunted climber clings to an impossible mountainside. Also, there should be a rule limiting use of the phrase “siren song” to no more than once per movie.

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Sometimes the narration encourages questions but leaves us hanging. “Three centuries ago,” we are informed, “climbing mountains would have been considered lunacy.” So what changed? The script does not go into details. Was it because rich people with too much time on their hands were seeking new thrills? 

The film suggests that this might be the case, but later it takes the purist point of view when it disparages tourists climbing Everest and armies of weekend adventurers skiing down manicured slopes. “This isn’t climbing anymore,” Dafoe sniffs. “It’s queuing. This isn’t exploration. It’s crowd control.”

Shots of snowy mountainsides being dynamited — apparently to make way for plebeian ski resorts — and recurring shots of what appears to be a dismayed Tibetan monk suggest we have lost our way, whatever that may be.

The other part of the soundtrack, the music, is more successful. Although it leans a little heavily on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and composer Richard Tognetti is no Philip Glass, there are moments when the classical choices fit elegantly with the imagery to achieve the sublime (a concept which the narration pedantically insists on defining for us). The fusion of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto with an aerial shot of two human specks crossing an infinite blue and white ice sheet might elevate your spirit, but only if Dafoe keeps still.


MOUNTAIN

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Directed by Jen Peedom. Written by Robert Macfarlane, based on his book “Mountains of the Mind.” Starring Willem Dafoe. Opens June 1 at Kendall Square. 74 minutes. PG (perilous sports action, some injury images, and brief smoking).  

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.